TO THE HUMAN BODY, every shaving nick or scraped knee is an emergency. Something has disrupted the protective barrier between the body and its surrounding environment, and it must be restored immediately. So as soon as the razor or gravel does its damage, the body fires off a series of biochemical SOS messages to get the surrounding cells to send help—proteins to stop the bleeding and cover the cut, cells to repair the tissue, and various bacteria-killing bodies to ward off infection.
The balance is usually restored within a few days. Usually, but not always. Diabetics, for instance, are plagued by poor circulation that can lead to chronic, slow-healing wounds. The slower the mend, the more likely there will be complications and infections—increasing the risk of amputation.
So how do you tell the body to hurry up and heal? A group of five Wentworth electromechanical engineering students—led by Salah Badjou, assistant professor of electrical engineering and technology—spent a year tackling this problem as part of a senior project. What they found was that the answer didn’t necessarily lie in traditional medical approaches some biological or chemical solution. The key, it seems, might just be electrical.
THE IDEA THAT ELECTRICITY could play a useful role in healing the body is not a new one. One hundred and fifty years ago, German physiologist Emil Dubois-Reymond cut his arm and found that there was an electrical current at the wound site. His discovery wasn’t really resurrected by researchers until this past decade, with interest especially picking up of late. “The field is still in its infancy,” says Badjou. “It is very promising, though.”
Badjou broached the idea for a student project on electric wound healing with friend and colleague Dennis Orgill, a plastic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Orgill, who has been researching the effect of vacuum-like devices on healing times, was interested in the concept and agreed to help advise the students.
For the students—Jeff Lopes, BELM ’12, Chris Ranahan, BELM ’12, Aung Soe, BELM ’12, Michael Harmon, BELM ’12, and Tatiana Gunderson, BELM ’12—it represented their second skin-related project. Their junior year project involved developing tensile testing devices for soft tissue—specifically, skin or tendons in mice. Still, the new project required enormous amounts of exploratory research. “We looked at hundreds of articles,” says Lopes, the group’s project manager. Just to get to that point, they had to find the relevant articles—which sometimes included hoofing it to the library or ordering them online. When they finally sat down to read them, they would often discover they were dead ends. “That’s the difference between our project and [our classmates’],” says Lopes. Everyone else, it seemed, was working with proven, well-documented technologies. “We would find something and have to think, ‘Is this worth anything?’” says Lopes. “You can’t weigh it against anything else. You have to use your intuition.”
It was a fruitful slog, though. The team was able to identify how the skin creates an electrical battery of sorts, thanks to a flow of positively charged sodium ions and negatively charged chloride ions. “It is like a battery without any wires,” says Soe. “There isn’t any current flow.” That is, until the razor nicks the flesh. Then everything short-circuits. The electric field shifts, sending a directional signal to the rest of the cells that there has been an injury.
That’s where the students’ work comes in. They figured that by taking this naturally occurring electrical distress signal and pumping it up, they could supercharge the healing process. “It’s like overclocking the system,” says Ranahan. “We kind of boot up the voltage to make the electrical field go faster.”
Testing this required the group to build two devices: one, a small desktop black box, with four electrodes that can be attached to wounds; and two, a simulation program that allows users to determine the proper voltage settings for the device. (All of which cost a grand total of $150.)
In a lab setting, the process would go like this: a researcher or doctor determines a potential location for the device’s electrodes based on the wound and then punches those coordinates into the software simulation to see what voltages produce the optimal effect. The resulting numbers are then entered into the device to create the desired electric field. Apply the electrodes to the skin with a dressing, and then— potentially—watch as a weeklong healing process takes a few days.
THERE ARE BIG QUESTIONS left to tackle. For one, no one—not the students, not the researchers whose work they read, not the doctors at the forefront of this technology—knows exactly what they are attracting when they send out this overheated distress call. And they really don’t know if this device they’ve spent a year putting together will even work. Just like any potential medical breakthrough, it has to be tested in mice first, then humans. Plus, the medical community is slow in picking up non-biological solutions—a deficiency Badjou attributes to a lack of interdisciplinary collaboration. “Doctors are very good in biological and medical thinking,” says Badjou. “But in engineering, they are typically weak.”
Still, the students think that what they have in this little black box is a giant first step. “We made a device that could help [researchers] get to a breakthrough,” says Lopes. And eventually, says Gunderson, they hope that breakthrough can make it to the hospital. “Patients with diabetes really struggle with healing time, and I think with our device, we might really be able to help improve their quality of life.”
Really, that’s why they took on the project in the first place. This was, after all, an extremely difficult challenge—one, Badjou says, typically reserved for graduate-level students. But what it offered, the group says, was the chance to do something bigger. “When people ask me why I went into engineering and concentrated in biomedical, I always say ‘Idon’t want to be the guy who makes the next iPod,’” says Ranahan. “I want to help people lead better lives.” —DAN MORRELL